| Tour d'Abyss
My initial plan for bagging Bierstadt and Evans had been to take the standard west slope route up to Bierstadt, then, weather, energy, and courage permitting, cross the Sawtooth to Evans. This strategy was foiled when I found out that the Guanella Pass was closed due to a rock slide and I wouldn't be able to drive to the Guanella Pass trailhead from I-70. (I'm beginning to wonder if the Guanella Pass is EVER open—every time I drive into Georgetown it's closed!) The alternate route described below (also explained in more detail as Route # 3 on the Bierstadt section of 14ers.com: http://14ers.com/routemain.php?route=bier3&peak=Mt.+Bierstadt– fantastic description as always, Bill!) is a good option when the Guanella Pass is closed and you're coming from the north. Some guidebooks call this "La Tour d'Abyss," referring to the fact that the route encircles Abyss Lake. Keep in mind, however, that much more scrambling and exposure is involved to get to the top of Bierstadt this way. Rather than having an easy Class 2 hike up to the summit of Bierstadt via the west slope route, the majority of this route between the base of Bierstadt's east ridge and the end of the Sawtooth is Class 3, with some areas of significant exposure even before reaching the Sawtooth.
I parked alongside the road up to Mt. Evans on the lowest switchback on its southeast side at about 7 a.m., which was a bit later than I'd hoped (what I get for sleeping in). This parking spot was at about 13,250 ft. on the saddle between Mt. Evans and Epaulet Mountain. It was a beautiful morning, although cold at 34 degrees. I headed west across the saddle, then descended the gulley that leads down to the Lake Fork of Scott Gomer Creek. Starting a 14er climb by dropping about 1,000 feet of elevation was certainly different. The rock on the gulley was fairly loose, so I took my time going down. Once at the bottom, I headed southwest toward the small lake at the base of the east ridge of Bierstadt. This provided ample time to survey the east ridge and Sawtooth from a distance.
The gulley at the start of "La Tour." The rock is fairly loose, so be careful.
Bierstadt's east ridge. Bierstadt's summit is on the right; Point 13,641 is in the middle.
Another view of the east ridge.
From the unnamed lake at the bottom of the east ridge, looking north to the Sawtooth.
I made it to the top of the ridge by 9:00 a.m. after a nice scramble up the east side. I'd regained most of the elevation I had lost since the start of the trek by this point. The route north to Point 13,641 looked difficult, and it certainly didn't prove me wrong. It required some fairly challenging scrambling and had a few stretches of exposure. I scramble slow, so I didn't make it to the top of Point 13,641 until 10:30. From there the path was easier with no exposure, but still remained around the Class 2+ level.
The intimidating Point 13,641.
From Point 13,641 looking northward to Bierstadt's summit.
I finally made it to the summit of Bierstadt at 11:30. The views were great, and I snapped some great photos of Grays and Torreys to the west. I could also look down at the Sawtooth and ponder my next move. It looked pretty frightening, so I was considering taking the west slope route down Bierstadt, then following Scott Gomer Creek south around the mountain and back up the gulley to my car. This would have been a long journey, but I didn't know if I'd be able to handle the exposure on the Sawtooth. I spent several minutes on Bierstadt's summit chatting with a very nice family that had hiked up the west slope route—a father and his 18-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son. None of us were planning on attempting the Sawtooth. As we chatted, however, another climber walked up and started telling us about crossing the Sawtooth. He made it sound like it was extraordinarily easy, even when he was addressing the 13-year-old. He used phrases like "minimal exposure" and "nice, little scramble." After this pep-talk, the family decided to descend down to the Sawtooth and cross over to Evans. After watching them for a few minutes, I followed after (a 13-year-old wasn't going to show me up!).
Grays and Torreys Peaks from the summit of Bierstadt.
Looking down at the Sawtooth Ridge from Bierstadt.
Well, fools rush in where angels fear to tread. I wasn't prepared for the amount of exposure on the Sawtooth. In hindsight, I should have trusted my OWN judgment and should not have attempted to cross the Sawtooth that afternoon. The physical scrambling involved is a lot of fun, but there are some stretches of significant exposure that should be taken into account. If you don't like exposure, trust me: there will be moments when you will be very scared crossing the Sawtooth. Looking back on the experience from my office chair, it's easy to only remember how invigorating it was and how much fun I had. But, when I was actually on the Sawtooth that afternoon, I admittedly had about 4 or 5 moments in which I thought to myself, "Oh my God, I'm going to die on this rock." One point in particular, when the only thing standing between me and a fatal fall was my left foot resting on an 18-inch rock ledge (I didn't even have a good hand-hold), comes to mind.
This leads me to the main take-away of this report: Always keep in mind that perceptions of climbing difficulty and exposure are RELATIVE. No doubt the climber who encouraged us to cross the Sawtooth truly believed that the route was easy and had "minimal" exposure. In fact, even some guidebooks make it sound like a walk in the park. But these may be the perceptions of veteran mountaineers who have summitted Denali or Annapurna. One man's "minimal" exposure may lead to fear-induced paralysis when another experiences it. Don't rely on what a fellow climber says or what you read in a guidebook to make decisions. Only you know the difficulty and exposure levels at which you will be comfortable!
Anyway, I'd caught up to the family by the time I'd descended to the start of the Sawtooth. They were nice enough to let me tag along with them, and I'm really thankful they did. (I haven't included their names or photos out of respect for their privacy.) They were great company, and the daughter and son had fantastic eyes for spotting cairns. They actually led the way for the vast majority of the time. The 13-year-old's aspirations are to someday be a guide on Mt. Everest, and I have to say he has tremendous potential. He maneuvered the Sawtooth as if he'd done it a million times. We started across the Sawtooth at a few minutes after noon. The exposure on the south side of the ridge didn't seem too bad, but when we crossed over to the north side it increased significantly. You can bet your bottom dollar that I was being as careful and deliberate as I possibly could be. Unfortunately, this made me forget about taking pictures. I wish I had a few more photos from the Sawtooth, but I guess this gives me an excuse to do it over again.
Nearing the end of the Sawtooth on its north side. This scree-covered slope was one of the most frightening parts for me.
Looking back across the Sawtooth to Mt. Bierstadt.
We finally made it across the Sawtooth and onto the large, gently-sloping saddle between Mt. Spaulding and Mt. Evans. From there it was still a lengthy Class 2 traverse around the western side of Mt. Evans. We made the summit of Mt. Evans at about 4:15. The views were amazing. All of the other Front Range 14ers (Bierstadt, Grays, Torreys, Longs, and even Pikes Peak) were visible. The only drawback was how crowded the summit was. I guess that's what happens when there's a paved road up to the top.
The family had parked all the way back at the Guanella Pass trailhead (they had come from Colorado Springs, so the pass was open for them to the trailhead). This meant that they would have needed to hike all the way back across the Sawtooth and up and down Bierstadt to return to their vehicle. They were already tired and hungry, however, and the daughter and son were starting to get pounding headaches (mild altitude sickness, perhaps, or maybe just hunger). I didn't feel comfortable letting my new comrades hike all the way back to the Guanella Pass trailhead—I know I wouldn't have wanted to do it. Instead, I offered (well, more like insisted) to drive them all the way around the mountains along I-70 and Highway 285 to the Guanella Pass—exactly the same route I'd taken "La Tour d'Abyss" to avoid. This would take me about 4 hours out of my way in total, but I thankfully didn't need to work the next morning. We walked down the south side of Mt. Evans (spotting several mountain goats along the way) and got to my car at 5:30 p.m. After grabbing some much-needed sandwiches at the Quizno's in Idaho Springs, I drove them to their vehicle.
The drive was actually very scenic and enjoyable, and the conversation was great (we talked 14ers the whole way). Even though it was out of my way, I was happy to drive them. After all, isn't making new friends and helping each other out one of the great benefits of climbing 14ers? It certainly is to me. I dropped them off at their vehicle just as it was starting to get dark, and I had just enough time to snap a photo of Mt. Bierstadt and the Sawtooth from the Guanella Pass trailhead. As I drove back home, I couldn't help thinking that the day had been a splendid success. I'd bagged two 14ers, survived the Sawtooth, made some new friends (we're hoping to do some more climbs together in the future!), and had a great story to tell. The memories from this climb I'll certainly cherish forever.
And, despite the intense pangs of fear I had at times, I'm already looking forward to taking another "Tour d'Abyss" soon. As long as you're aware of what you're getting into and can control any fear that might arise from the exposure, this is a tremendously rewarding route.
Mountain goats on Mt. Evans.
Bierstadt and the Sawtooth from the Guanella Pass trailhead.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):